Sing October 30 2016
I had never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) until I went to the movie by the same name (starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant). It was a delicious window into her later years and well worth seeing. Her story is a profound lesson in living well.
Ms. Jenkins originally was a pianist, but after an arm injury she was no longer able to play. Her love of music expression turned to singing opera.
Wikipedia reports these details.
“According to published reviews and other contemporary accounts, Jenkins’s acknowledged proficiency at the piano did not translate well to her singing. She is described as having great difficulty with such basic vocal skills as pitch, rhythm, and sustaining notes and phrases.
“In recordings, her accompanist Cosmé McMoon can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her constant tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes, but there was little he could do to conceal her inaccurate intonation. She was consistently flat, and sometimes deviated from the proper pitch by as much as a semitone. Her diction was similarly substandard, particularly with foreign-language lyrics.
“The difficult operatic solos that she chose to perform—all well beyond her technical ability and vocal range—served only to emphasize these deficiencies; and, paradoxically, to enhance her popularity. The opera impresario Ira Siff, who dubbed her ‘the anti-Callas’, said, ‘Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theater ... She would stray from the original music, and do insightful and instinctual things with her voice, but in a terribly distorted way. There was no end to the horribleness ...’ “
Ms. Jenkins gave many vocal recitals starting in 1912, wearing elaborately garish costumes that she created. At the age of 76, in 1944, she agreed to give a recital at Carnegie Hall.
The event sold out weeks in advance; an estimated 2,000 people were reported to have been turned away at the door.
Although her fans adored her, the reviews were awful.
Many treated the event as comedy. It is not clear if she was in on the joke, but I like to think that she was.
Regardless, she was not deterred.
“People may say I can’t sing,” she once said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
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